George Monbiot penned another fine Grauniad piece this week, this time on Jeremy Corbyn. So what have these in common: Corbyn’s leadership bid, Syriza, and Scotland’s Yes vote? Quite a lot, I’d say. One, they all tap and give focus to a groundswell of resistance, its depth and scale surprising even their leaderships, to an ‘austerity’ that enriches the few at the expense of the most vulnerable.
Two, they sideline the centre-left. The Scottish Labour wipe-out in May did not come out of the blue. Last year’s Yes demographics spoke, to anyone listening, not of Rob Roy nationalism but of disgust in Scotland’s industrial heartlands at Labour policies barely distinguishable from those of the Tories. (Labour was not listening. Three months later its now ditched electoral college threw up Jim Murphy, epitome of all that was driving the meltdown, as the man to shore up the Scottish Labour vote.) Now Corbynia has Burnham, Cooper and Kendall struggling to come up with policies the technocrats never dreamt would be needed as the JC campaign spills out from packed halls onto the streets, and in the process has the nation enthralled. But the most punishing blow was delivered by Greece. As Syriza took first place, and the centre-right New Democracy second, centre-left Pasok did not come third (Golden Dawn did), nor fourth (a left sect marginalised by Syriza did) nor even fifth (the Communist Party did) but sixth, with less than 5% of a 74% turnout.
Three, all are premised on a faith in parliament that confuses office with power. Could Corbyn win a general election? His chances are as good as those of the other contenders. (Which may be why David Miliband, recognising this, cynically backed the awful Liz Kendall as placeholder best suited to his own bid following defeat in 2020.) But the more fundamental question, as applicable in Athens and Holyrood as in Westminster, is whether a party, returned on a ticket of social justice in the face of globalisation and a determined ruling class, could ever deliver. I was thrilled by Syriza’s victory, by an Establishment rocked by the Yes surge north of the border, and now by a Corbyn campaign that has brought more debate, more supporters returning to the fold of a seemingly moribund party, than anyone could have imagined. But while my heart wishes otherwise, my head says such a party could not so deliver.
If, as I believe, parliamentary democracy is incompatible now with any check on the rapacity of a system whose intrinsic laws demand that it subordinate all interests to those of profit, where does that leave us? Thirty years ago I argued for revolutionary international socialism and vanguard party. Not now. Lenin and Trotsky have little to offer post smokestack Europe. Gone are the stink and sprawl and raw confrontation of factories and mills whose workers had means, motive and – such was the power of coal, steel, rail and engineering – opportunity to rain crushing blows on capitals less able than now to up sticks and go overseas. Nor do I see ground for optimism, beyond that of keeping the flame alive, in the frequently brilliant tactics of non Marxist radical movements like Occupy. Insufficiently attentive to the lessons of history, from Peasant Rebellion and Levellers to 1926 trade unionism and May ’68 activism, their rainbow alliances will be no match for the strategies of divide-and-rule, bribery and naked coercion they will encounter should they ever be taken seriously by those they challenge.
Which leaves a meagre choice: shout from the gallery for a plague on all houses, or let my heart take me places my head says can deliver only crushed hope. I’ll take the second – critically but unconditionally – if it’s all the same to you. Capitalism, a once progressive force that overthrew feudalism and slavery, has long outlived its heroic phase and now threatens us all. It has no life-affirming response to the great challenges of our age, and too few of us grasp the shocking logic of a system where production is driven or stalled not by human need but by profits or their absence. One whose monopolistic tendencies negate the mantra of free trade, and whose falling profits and periodic crises are checked by war and its destruction of capital which alone can renew the business cycle. We fail to appreciate these things because we – I mean you and me – have known only capitalism at its most benign, its true and truly totalitarian nature reined in by the imperatives of a Cold War now over, and with it the need to make concessions. Enter the insecurity of the zero hours contract, the ever more reckless extraction of carbon stocks and the daylight robbery of public assets by very private interests.
With such thoughts uppermost I support Jeremy Corbyn even as I know that in the unlikely event of a 2020 victory his government would either dilute its program or face the wrath of Rothermere and Murdoch, runs on sterling and, as last resort, constitutional crises engineered to lend cover to extra-parliamentary intervention. With similar misgivings I supported Syriza, and Scotland’s refusal to bow to New Labour ‘realism’. (At the very least, Trident renewal will be a noisier affair than its champions had hoped and expected!) I supported these things not because they can deliver but because they tap into something deep and authentic, and thereby stimulate raucous debate where previously the only sounds on the air were the mood music of austerity and an opium laced lyric that would have us accept as sober reason the logic of the madhouse.